"You can only lose against Beethoven," Steffen Schleiermacher said in a recent interview. The German is one of five composers commissioned by Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus to write a companion piece to one of Beethoven's symphonies for performance during the orchestra's Beethoven cycle. His piece – called Bann. Bewegung. Mit Beethovens Erster, which translates as Stasis. Movement. With Beethoven's First – is a response to the opener; it is constructed from the stylistic building blocks (crashing chords, reiterated rhythmic mottoes, delayed harmonic resolutions, and so on) that the First shares with its eight successors. In the process, Schleiermacher also plays games with the work's harmonic structure.
Beethoven opens the symphony with a famously disorienting discord and then takes his time to reach the home key of C major. Schleiermacher, reversing the process, opens with thumping chords in the same key, from which he then gradually moves away. The score's violent syncopations make it terribly difficult to play, and it forms a fine showcase for the Gewandhaus Orchestra's precision. Yet clever and impressive though it is, it also feels a bit too long. Schleiermacher does indeed "lose against Beethoven", although it's an honourable defeat.
Bann. Bewegung. Mit Beethovens Erster also sounds deadly serious, in marked contrast to Chailly's almost playful interpretation of the First. That famous discord was almost thrown away as if in jest, and what followed – the first of the most revolutionary set of symphonies ever written – was a thrilling, gleeful adventure into these new musical landscapes.
The Seventh came after the interval, adding majesty to the prevailing mood of excitement. It was played with staggering exactitude at precariously swift speeds. The allegretto was momentarily too pressured for my taste, but the electrifying finale brought the audience to its feet.